In 2020, what’s been frequently referred to as the biggest workplace experiment in the modern age, we saw the transition to remote work happen practically overnight and for many this was a first. For others though it was business as usual, as remote work was the norm prior to the pandemic.
In this series, we talk to a number of companies each with a different set up for work:
- Always been remote-first
- Transitioning to remote-first
- Hybrid - a combination of office and remote
Through our conversations, we learn the story behind each company’s approach and if the pandemic has influenced a change in the structure of their workplace.
In this first interview, we catch up with Mai Fenton, Chief Marketing Officer at Superscript, a scaling startup that’s disrupting the business insurance industry through technology.
Mai explains why the team have opted to move to a hybrid way of working post lockdown, having been exclusively office based pre-pandemic. Once restrictions have subsided, the intention is to offer employees a combination of optional office space in London and remote work - giving people the best of both worlds. Mai also shares the different ways they have maintained company culture as well as some of the ups and downs through this extraordinary time.
Can you describe Superscript in 30 seconds? What do you do?
Superscript is a London-based, Series A funded business insurance challenger, with an ambition to be the global leader of small business insurance. We provide personalised, flexible and scalable subscription-based insurance designed specifically to meet the ever-evolving needs of ambitious businesses. We’re utilising technology to modernise the broken insurance experience, simplifying and putting customers at the heart of the journey and delivering adequate and fair insurance through an intuitive online experience.
What proportion of your people are remote / primarily office based? Has this balance changed long term as a result of the pandemic?
Prior to the pandemic, we were an almost exclusively office-based team working from our shared workspace in Borough, London. The pandemic has of course flipped this on its head.
Superscript is a people-first business and, as a team, we’ve always valued spending time with each other and building strong connections. It’s therefore fair to say that there were some teething problems when we first transitioned to home working during the pandemic! For that reason, we’ve kept a very open line of communication between the management team and the wider team to constantly have a feel for how people are finding their work set-up. Regular employee engagement surveys told us that some of the team enjoyed their new home-working set up, while others really missed the office environment. With that in mind, we took the decision to set up a hybrid-working policy in line with government guidance, for the team to ‘get the best of both worlds’ when possible.
Outside of national lockdowns and as COVID-19 restrictions allowed, team members that needed to, have been allowed back to our COVID-secure workspace on occasional days, while spending the rest of the week working from home. With the majority of our team experimenting with this arrangement over the summer months, we found this hybrid way of working brought back an energy to the team that was missing during the early days of lockdown and enabled teams to collaborate in ways that hadn’t been so effective when we were fully-remote.
With teams working remotely, how do you maintain your company culture?
Like many companies, we’ve massively upped our use of Slack and Google Meet to encourage and facilitate real-time collaboration and communication. While it’s not the same as being in the office together, impromptu group calls and Slack quizzes have helped maintain relationships across the company and have helped to onboard new team members (of which there have been many over the last six months - over a third of our current workforce started after the first lockdown began).
Specific initiatives that have worked well include our weekly ‘Lockdown Challenge’ in which we set a task at the start of the week (lip sync challenge being one popular example!) for the team to compete to win the weekly prize. We always get great engagement, including from new starters.
A Slack add-on called Donut picks two employees at random and sets up a video call between, encouraging people to chat to others outside of their immediate team. Again, especially for new joiners this has been a great way for them to get to know different team members.
What are some of the benefits of a hybrid set-up?
A hybrid set-up in my opinion gives people the time to focus on more concentrated tasks on the days they’re at home, and provides an uplift in team engagement, productivity and pace when we’re able to come together in person in the office; I often hear from my team about how they look forward to coming to the office on a regular basis once restrictions are lifted. I think if 2020 has taught us anything, it’s how much we need meaningful human connection.
We’ve found the hybrid set-up has had a direct positive impact on the team’s work-life balance and has given everyone more flexibility in their working day, as long as they are set up adequately. As soon as we heard of a possible national lockdown in March last year, we ordered sufficient monitors and home working equipment, including quality noise cancelling communication headsets; staff who needed one were equipped with ergonomic office chairs delivered to their home. It was very important to us that all employees could work comfortably from their own home.
From a business perspective, it’s enabled us to retain staff who have moved away from London during lockdown permanently and has widened the pool of candidates that we’re recruiting from to bring the best talent into the business.
It is worth noting that some of our employees for whom working from home full time is far from ideal - for example those living on their own or those whose living space does not allow for a productive working environment - expressed a strong desire not to move to a fully remote model after the first national lockdown. For those in particular, a hybrid solution is a welcome way forward.
Some people describe hybrid as the best of both worlds or the worst of both worlds - what’s your take? How do you make hybrid work?
I believe the key to successful hybrid working lies in communication and openness. And the understanding that one size doesn’t fit all. That said, there does need to be clear guidelines so that everyone is singing from the same hymn sheet and no one team or individual is getting different treatment.
Team heads have a responsibility to regularly check in with individuals in their team to ensure their working arrangement is working for them and that they’re receiving the support they need from their manager.
There’s a risk with hybrid working that people get very used to working closely with their immediate team, but not the wider business. We’ve found that our short, weekly all-company remote meetings keep the whole team connected and aligned to the central goals. And, when creating office rotas, we make sure that there is regular crossover between different teams so that people constantly have the opportunity to interact with people outside their immediate team when they’re in the office.
Have you introduced any new employee engagement initiatives as a result of the pandemic to overcome some of these challenges?
We were already providing mental health support through Vitality, but in addition to this, we introduced virtual therapy with Spill, a Slack add-on. And as previously mentioned, Donut encourages inter-team conversation and collaboration.
Recognising the risk of people working longer hours with the blurred lines between work and personal time that hybrid working presents, we’ve given the team extra days off this year to encourage people to take meaningful time away from work. As an example, we gave everyone an extra day of annual leave before the second national lockdown came into effect to give people time to run errands that they wouldn’t be able to under lockdown, and/or simply to take a break.
Similarly, to promote health and wellbeing we introduced a Cycle to Work scheme to support employees that were keen to come to the office but wanted to avoid public transport.
Do you have any tools or tips to effectively collaborate across remote and office based employees?
On top of the aforementioned communication/messaging tools we use, we also use Asana company-wide as a project management tool. With so many team members working cross-functionally, we find Asana priceless for aiding collaboration.
What are the most popular employee benefits at Superscript?
We have a diverse workforce that is motivated by very different things. Some employees value our hybrid working model first and foremost, with the ability to work from home; others who prefer to come to the workplace frequently enjoy our office environment (including free snacks, drinks, access to a gym and personal training on site) and our friendly and sociable culture. Cyclists have welcomed the Cycle to Work scheme.
We offer generous private health and dental insurance, and a pension scheme. Though nowadays these tend to be a given, most of our employees choose to extend their pension scheme contribution, which is matched by us.
Our employee options scheme is perhaps the most popular and motivating benefit. Not only does it help keep the team aligned with our mission and engaged with the core metrics that deliver performance, it also brings a sense of ownership and reward to all individuals.
We note that you are hiring at the moment - has your approach changed with regards to onboarding new team members, owing to the hybrid set up?
Whilst we have proven over lockdown that remote onboarding can absolutely be done, we believe that one of the hardest things to replicate remotely is the value of organic learning when you’re new to a team - i.e. when you overhear someone talking about a project or new feature and are able to get involved and ask questions.
Our onboarding process already included the wider business beyond a new joiner’s manager and immediate team; but since moving to a hybrid set-up, has been more reliant on an element of remote interaction which makes the organic learning somewhat more challenging for a new starter.
As a result, we are now allocating a ‘buddy’ to help them settle into life at Superscript; and video calls are diarised with lots of different people around the business for new joiners to get a good feel for how different teams operate and where their role fits in.
Finally, we’ve replaced the in-person welcome lunch or drinks with a welcome gift sent to new starter’s homes.
A big thank you to Mai for sharing Superscript’s new approach to the workplace. To learn more about Superscript’s way of working check out their careers page.